Saturday, 5 May 2018

TOKAJI




Er, I’m not entirely sure what I’m meant to write here.

My natural instinct is to spin a leisurely web of context both explaining my history with the esoteric Hungarian dessert wine known as Tokaji and to recap the unlikely (albeit weirdly brief) chain of events that led to me crowd-funding a successful effort to buy a bottle of it from my local branch of Lidl. Probably I would feel obliged to explain the concept of noble rot.

But perhaps that would be cheating my sponsors, who footed the bill so that they might get my opinion on the stuff. Really, only they can say why they electronically transferred 50p a go in order that I could drink a bottle of wine that I could technically easily afford. But I will not cheapen their efforts by second-guessing their motives.

The Lidl Tokaji, £7.99 a bottle, fundamentally tastes like Tokaji. That is not being glib: in my head Tokaji is mostly defined by three characteristics: it tastes of apples, it tastes of honey, plus it has a thick, almost glutinous texture. If you can hit all three of those then in a very real way you have successfully ticked off all the reasons why I like Tokaji, and while I was worried that maybe an unexpectedly random and affordable supermarket brand might drop one of the balls in question, I can report that it doesn’t. Thus, by default, it is good, because if you are after Tokaji, then it is recognisably Tokaji. 

You may be sensing a ‘but’ coming on, but there isn’t: it’s just been so long since I’ve had Tokaji (it's usually a bugger to find and goes for about £20) that I honestly can’t pass comment on how this rates. Once, an astonishing 13 years ago, I tried about six different Tokajis in 30 minutes, during a ridiculous two-hour minute trip I made to the titular Hungarian village, and I could certainly muster an opinion on which were the best, so I'm not completely indiscriminate.

Maybe the only way to complete this task meaningfully is to try more UK-purchasable Tokajis and contextualise Lidl Tokaji. Possibly I should dig into those old skool Tokaji anecdotes - I no longer have any memory of starting this blog, but it would appear to be shortly after I went to Tokaji. Or perhaps the best thing would be to accept that I enjoy it and say that’ll do.

PS I didn't have a blog in 2005 but I did barrage people with emails (the post-post/pre-social media age was weird). Here is what I retrieved from an email I sent to approximately 70 people (not even bcc'd lol) 13 years ago (I really hated punctuation it seems).

15/08/2005 – On our last full day in Hungary we went to the town of Tokaji - I have on this trip been accused of indulgently taking control, and to be fair we only went there because the wine from the town in my mum's fave, but despite the fact that I spent the morning wanting to drown puppies because Jen ballsed up buying a ticket so terribly that we had to get the next train to the one we wanted and only spent two hours in Tokaji, it was actually incredible - we got there, got twatted on the quite incredible wine in this groovy wine cave shebang, then went up to look at a vineyard... somehow we befriended the wizened old man in charge and we ended up drinking home brewed apple brandy with him and his wife whilst keeping up a conversation wherein nobody understood anybody. Basically, best two hours ever.

Dedicated to: Giles, Janet, Robert, Jenna, David, Morgan, Aled, and especially Brian for the inspiration and Dan for the megabucks

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

LEAVING LABOUR


I finally left the Labour Party, which I’d been kind of planning to do for a while, really mostly out of a sense of fraudulence. I signed up in a post-2015 election funk in order to participate in the leadership election (went for Jeremy Corbyn, natch) but beyond a couple of other votes I could do from the comfort of my own laptop I never pounded the streets etc or really contributed anything to the party beyond £8 a month. I signed up for quite shallow reasons and the constant stream of ignored emails from my local party was underscoring this and my departure will be, to all intents and purposes, unnoticed and irrelevant. 

But I was stirred from my apathy enough to at least quit because the antisemitism ‘thing’ kind of seemed like a solid moment to get out - Chuka Umunna tweeted that ‘every UK Labour Party member should be deeply ashamed that it has come to this’ and I just thought: fair point, not sure I really sure I can be arsed taking collective responsibility for something I don’t feel especially vested in as an institution'.

Anyway, while I was only ever really briefly enthusiastic about Corbyn, he isn't really my problem. It's his fans that have done my head in, the zealous ideological investment that means his mistakes can't be acknowledged, especially re: antisemitism.

I kind of get it: people who venerate him because of his opposition to racism cannot conceive that he would be party to anything even mildly racist, to the point that they see the suggestion as as a smear, and start telling people offended by - this time - the mural incident that they’re wrong, that they shouldn’t be offended, that they’re part of some conspiracy.

The main thing that bothers me about the mural incident is this: however disingenuous Corbyn was about saying he'd not noticed that it was an antisemitic image, however reluctant he is to take his comrades to task, he ihas actually apologised and denounced said image. Leaving aside the fact it's unlikely any other politician would get this much benefit of the doubt, Corbyn has (sort of) admitted he was wrong. He also finally came out with the statement that he recognises that there are ‘pockets’ of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. 

But the thing about Jeremy Corbyn is that when Jeremy Corbyn suggests - however mildly - that Jeremy Corbyn might have been wrong about something, plenty of his fans disregard what he has to say. He is revered in certain respects, but patronised in others, by a fanbase that admires his ideological purity while also treating him like a slightly vulnerable saint who needs to be protected from the real world.

He's acknowledged that on some level both he and Labour have messed up. But constantly on social media or comments pages I see people calling this all a smear, saying it’s ludicrous to suggest Corbyn is in any way antisemitic, sharing a video of him condemning antisemitism as if that settles it, even a few - a few - suggesting that the mural wasn’t antisemitic. Some of the people saying this are pretty prominent figures, too.

Anyway, I wasn't being much of a party member before, and I feel like even less of a party member now, it's probably time to leave the party, so there it is.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

JESTEM POLAKIEM

I opened an email from my dad today and discovered that he'd sent me a scanned copy of my Polish birth certificate which he'd just been sent. For some reason that's not how I was expecting to discover that legally I was now a dual citizen: I think if you'd asked me to think about how I'd find out I'd have expected some sort of Official Note From The Polish Government (I do in fact actually have one of these as well) and if you'd asked me to not think about it I'd assume that they'd send me a passport (despite repeatedly being informed that's not how it works). But no: my life has been reconned in Polish, or something.

It is a bit of a strange project: I think that as with a lot of people going through something similar, the pragmatic impetus was to remain eligible for an EU passport and to do the same for my son. But I suppose ultimately Brexit has surely provided a romantic impetus for people to *vom* reconnect with their heritage.

I am acutely aware that Poland is neither a country I have spent much time in, nor one that is exactly a beacon to the world at the moment. When large numbers of Poles started coming over in the last decade, it did feel like a pretty brutal lesson in how un-Polish I in fact was. At least one of my main motivations for *vom* reconnection was crushing guilt at being able to speak Polish at a young age but forgetting after I staged some sort of stupid toddler protest against it. I am sure in a sense the option to take up Polish nationality has allowed me to displace disappointment at the stupid EU referendum into kidding myself I am somehow culturally different, when I'm sure 48% of the country feels the same.

Nonetheless, my dad is both Polish and a Polish historian, my grandparents were very Polish, I grew up with Polishness and Polish history and a spectacularly Polish name. I am fascinated by the country and have been learning the language properly in lunchtime classes for a year now. I have a towering sense of guilt and a fairly solid work ethic. I'm hopefully not a total fraud. If my whole life is, in essence, a very delayed accident of the second world war, it is nice to have a certificate telling me I have, in a literal sense, always been Polish.

I SAW THE LAST JEDI

The Last Jedi is an enjoyable space film that also feels like confirmation that the ‘new’ Star Wars films are not going to continue the series in any genuinely meaningful story sense. 

As with predecessor The Force Awakens, it gets members of the original cast to play with, one of whom is sacrificed to underscore how Important the events depicted are (SPOILER: it’s Luke, though the strong inference is less than he’s dead, more that he’s found some sort of cosmic zen or something).

I enjoyed it, but there's a lingering air of inconsequence: if in a decade or two a new episode VII and VIII were made, either replacing these two films or telling a different story set before or after, it’s difficult to imagine much fuss. To all intents and purposes The Last Jedi is another film in which Some Cool Starwarsy Stuff happens within the vague, reconstituted Empire vs Rebel Alliance scenario that is the First Order vs the Resistance.

From people who've loved it there's lots of praise for writer-director Rhian Johnson's iconoclasm in subverting traditional Star Wars tropes, but I'm not sure that's a great virtue purely on its own; I find most of its subversions quite pleasing, but they don't really add up to something of great meaning. Worse, it feels that as with TFA and Rogue One, it can't exist without the old films as reference. There’s a scene at the end where the original sacred texts of the Jedi order are destroyed, but whatever symbolism may lie there, the original trilogy of films remains the touchstone of the new trilogy and surrounding films. It’s increasingly fascinating to look back at the prequels - the first two of which were definitely not good - and see George Lucas just blithely writing a new story in a way that has completely eluded the new directors. 

It’s definitely easier to be hard on it, because its failures feel Star Wars-specific, whereas its successes largely lie in cinematography, design and direction of its action sequences. The bookending action sequences are incredibly gripping, and the blood red soil under snow of the final showdown is just gorgeous stuff. 

But also Mark Hamill is excellent as embittered old Luke, even if it’s a slight frustration that the film isn’t really ‘about’ him. Oscar Isaacs is by far the best of the ‘new’ heroes - he kind of manages to be a dickhead in a very sincere, alpha male hero way that doesn’t feel like it’s Han Solo redux. Laura Dern is good as Holdo the haughty head of the Resistance fleet. There is nothing as bang-head-on-wall stupid as Starkiller Base, and most of the really dumb stuff feels like an inheritance of The Force Awakens. A learned Twitter colleague had suggested to me that he sees the new trilogy is a sort of elaborate lit crit type thing to subvert and end the original story so that the NEXT trilogy of films can tell an original story. Which seems pretty psychotic  but not entirely implausible. Anyway, it’s fine, but doesn’t alter my basic contention that there are only really six Star Wars films at this point.


Seven vaguely annoying things
  1. I don’t really ‘get’ the First Order
    An inheritance of TFA, but it remains maddeningly unclear who the First Order are; terrorists? A mercenary army? They clearly have a quasi-imperial air to them, but I don’t think they’re running the galaxy.  They’re just, like, some guys? 
  2. I don’t really ‘get’ the Resistance
    It just seems mad that there’s so few of them, even accepting the mortality rate, the idea that only 400 people IN AN ENTIRE GALAXY can be arsed to fight the First Order is imbrobable (more Westerners than that probably signed up to fight Isis).
  3. What did Holdo do to the First Order fleet?
    The web descriptions just say she rammed them at lightspeed but that seems like a bit of a bald description, was there some reason why she or one of the other ships was unable to do that much earlier? (Other annoying science - heavily implication the ships were burning fuel to travel, but in space that’s surely not the case? And what the hell was the nonsense with the tracking device?)
  4. Rey is a terrible character
    She’s occasionally mildly amusing but mostly she’s just dull and bland. This feels MASSIVELY compounded by the fact she’s so posh, which just completely undermines the idea of her having ‘umble origins. She’s basically a virtuous posh person being effortlessly brilliant at things.
  5. Finn is a bit of a waste
    I think I said this around TFA, but a traumatised ex-Stormtrooper is kind of interesting, but they never really explore this, he’s just the slightly comic relief-y character. His sub plot just shows him to be A Nice Guy, and it’s the most pointless part of the film (it tries to show you a little about how the galaxy works, but the maddening vagueness of the First Order/Resistance thing just totally undermines it).
  6. I don't really 'get' the map to Luke
    Why was there a map to Luke? Given he didn't want anybody to find him it seems really unlikely he'd have left it, but who else would have done? And why is nobody bothered by this? ALSO I know he was in a mard but he seemed totally unbothered by Chewie and R2 being on his island – they all basically ignore each other.
  7. There's no cliffhanger
    Nothing feels particularly unresolved: the rebels have escaped, the First Order – whose scale as an outfit remains opaque – don't seem to be in the best of shape. Clearly the last film will end in a reckoning for Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. But with the universe seemingly curiously unarsed about any of this, it doesn't feel particularly important, while Ren's redemption is of questionable interest – clearly he has done such bad things that he's unlikely to be let off the hook. Presumably good will win out in the end, but the fact the reset button was pressed so airily with The Force Awakens suggests perhaps it doesn't really matter.
ANYWAY. It’s fundamentally an enjoyable film. I dug the Porgs.


Saturday, 16 December 2017

RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO

I think it was probably a pretty difficult decision for the Royal Court to pull its January run of the revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too. 

I imagine it was also a very difficult decision to un-cancel it in light of widespread accusations that they were censoring the playwright, an iconic working class writer who burned bright and died young etc. 

This is obviously all pure conjecture, but I would further guess that the fact Court AD Vicky Featherstone ultimately changed her mind is reflective of the fact she had struggled with the decision in the first place. I certainly don’t get the impression that the reinstatement has been made through gritted teeth, or that the backlash has been comparable to that against, say, the Tricycle’s decision to back out of the Jewish Film Festival.

So I’m a bit depressed by the polarised tone of many of the reactions to it, that a decision probably agonised over has been turned into some sort of Biblically stark scenario.

My hilariously convoluted personal view is that there were sound reasons for cancelling it - which seem to be the ones most people on side seem to be assuming the Court cancelled it for - but that the Court’s actual stated reasons were pretty questionable. 

The press release announcing the cancellation said very little about Max Stafford-Clark, but instead suggested that the themes of the play made it inappropriate to stage in the light of the Court’s admirable recent work in addressing abuse in the industry. 

A lot of ‘theatre people’ are aware that the play has a history bound up with the recently-outed-as-an-abuser etc Stafford-Clark, that he was originally scheduled to direct this revival, and that the Royal Court is a new writing theatre that hardly ever plays host to revivals and that Stafford-Clark - who directed Rita, Sue and Bob Too’s premiere at the Court in 1982 - was essentially the reason the revival was calling in. I think those are all pretty sound reasons to reject the production, a touring show from Out of Joint, the company MSC recently left in disgrace. 

However, none of them were publicly stated as reasons for its cancellation and I’m not sure much of this is widely known outside a fairly narrow circle of industry figures/theatre buffs. So I’m not very surprised that a large number of people not in the industry have taken the Court’s statement – which I think was clumsy at best – at face value, believing that the principle reason for taking Rita, Sue and Bob Too off is that the themes in it are not appropriate for staging (at this time, sure, but when would they ever be?) And it’s not much of a leap to then start fretting about the irony of ‘censoring’ the blameless Dunbar – one of the most iconic working class playwrights of the '80s – in the name of young women who’d been abused.

Were the Court's reasons for taking it off actually the ones stated? If I had to guess I'd say no. I imagine it’s legally difficult to say much more about Stafford-Clark without opening yourself to possible legal action, given he’s not been charged with anything and the public accusations against him are thus far both recent and limited. In fact I don't think I’ve seen one person defending the decision on the grounds of the wording of the decision, but on a subtext that they assume to be there. But it may not be, and it’s certainly not going to be apparent to people like, say, Hadley Freeman or Gloria de Piero who have expressed their upset at the ban. It has been suggested to me that I’m being pedantic over the wording of a press release, or that the real reasons go without saying. I really don’t think so - your public statement is your public statement. Words matter. You're communicating to the world, not a clique. 

Clearly there are some absolute free speech bore dickheads who’ve waded in unhelpfully, without meaning well. And I feel uncomfortable about older male figures of the MSC vintage giving anyone any lectures about anything. But a lot of the people who work in theatre or write about theatre who wanted the play reinstated had earnest and heartfelt reasons for it and the way I’ve seen some of them spoken about on Twitter is almost is if they’re traitors to some sort of grand cause that the cancellation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too was furthering. As it is, I don’t even think there had been any sort of meaningful motion to ban the play prior to the Court doing so itself. (Which is not to say that it hadn’t been viewed as problematic, but perhaps it had been given a pass specifically because of the good work the Court has been doing lately).

Anyway - the Court has stated there should be no grey areas in terms of professional and personal relationships. But other grey areas will always exist. Rita, Sue and Bob Too exists in a grey area because there are legitimate reasons for taking it off and legitimate reasons for keeping it on. In the end I get the feeling that Featherstone’s decision was swayed by the fact that the Court is a writer’s theatre first, and perhaps the indignation for Dunbar's sake offered her a default route to take that aligned with her theatre's mission. All I can really say is that I don’t think any of this is a sign of weak leadership, just hard decisions. Agonising over something difficult is perfectly normal. Suggesting Vicky Featherstone has been bullied into providing a platform for Max Stafford-Clark is reductive at best, cobblers at worse. 

The fact that the play can only be either off or in doesn’t mean either state is perfect.

I imagine there’s is a certain awareness that the route that would have caused the least fuss would have been not doing anything and hoping the run went off with minimal comment.

I imagine there will be a lot of people very relieved when the run is over.

Personally, I think the best outcome now is that the discourse around it can go some way to pry the play from the shadows of its past. People would like Dunbar's reputation to survive her director's. So I guess if the show is now happening, let's go into it with that frame of mind.